BLU REVIEW: Disney’s The Sword in the Stone

THE SET-UP
The 18th of Walt Disney’s animated classics, The Sword in the Stone tells the classic story of a young Arthur, as he rises to become king of England, with the help of Merlin the Wizard.
Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman.

THE DELIVERY
The Sword in the Stone, Disney’s take on the King Arthur legend, has many of the hallmarks you would expect in a Disney animated film: talking animals, outstanding music, and a strong moral lesson. However, it is unique in that it takes a more mature spin on the “coming of age” theme.

While the film has its share of humor and light moments, much of the story involves Merlin teaching Arthur (whom everyone calls “Wart”) a series of life lessons by turning him into different animals. While entertaining, the lessons are geared to older children, as they sometimes feature somber lessons. When Wart is turned into a fish, he learns about the bigger fish out to make him a meal; when he becomes a squirrel, he breaks the heart of a girl squirrel; when he becomes a bird, he runs into Madam Mim, who tries to kill him to spite Merlin.

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While the animation is quite good and the film entertaining for the most part, it does not truly connect emotionally with the viewer. You are merely watching Merlin and Arthur play out their adventures, but you don’t really care about them. There’s a detachment here that you don’t see in other Disney films of the 1960s. Everyone loves the Dalmatians, and Mowgli and Baloo were an appealing pair of friends. For The Sword in the Stone, however, you never really feel engaged.

That’s not to say the film is a dud; it will just appeal to slightly older kids and the adults who grew up loving the movie. However, younger children might be bored at times. The pacing is slower, and the tone isn’t as light, as other Disney films.

Still, the film overall has some fine moments; the “Wizards’ Battle” between Merlin and Madam Mim is great, and very well animated. The music, by the legendary Sherman Brothers, is excellent. The Sword in the Stone might be a minor Disney classic, but it is a classic nevertheless.

VIDEO AND AUDIO
About 10 minutes into this film, I found myself distracted by the video image, which has been heavily cleaned up and restored. While that sounds like a good thing, something about the image didn’t seem right to me. In particular, I found the color, which appears to be digitally enhanced, too bright and bold. It didn’t look like the color was the result of a cleaner, restored print. It looked like someone took the image and colored it in Microsoft Paint with the “fill tool.”

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This digital coloring seems to overpower the image and even affect, at times, the black outlines of the characters. Without getting too technical, it also appears the entire image was subjected to heavy digital noise reduction (DNR). While this process is effective in removing dust and debris in the image, it also removes film grain and “smooths” the image (for lack of a better term). While it makes the image look “newer and cleaner,” some argue it removes the “character” and “vintage” of the image.

Apparently, I am not the only one with concerns over the Sword in the Stone image. Some think the digital clean-up on the film was over-the-top, and have even voiced complaints on the film’s Facebook page. Some seem to think the DNR process softened the image. However, I disagree that the image has been softened. It appears the DNR process may have sharpened many details, especially in the bolder outlines. Whether the removal of dust and other debris, as well as film grain, ruins the video image will be up to the viewer to decide.

In my opinion, the color enhancement is the Blu-ray’s real drawback. The DVD included with the combo pack uses an older video master with some debris, film grain, and muted color palette still included. It looks like the film we all remember. The newer, color-enhanced version is a bit much. I wonder if the newer, bolder colors were really an attempt to restore the original color scheme intended by the filmmakers 50 years ago, or if this was an attempt to brighten-up a film with a muted color palette.

The stills included with this review were provided by Disney for this release, but were obviously taken from the older DVD video master. In the new version, Merlin’s cloak is a brighter baby blue, and in the image included below, where Merlin adjusts the crown on Arthur’s head, you can see Merlin’s original cloak color, and the orange-reds you see around Arthur now show greater contrast on Blu-ray. In some places, areas now have a purple and blue hue, rather than red. For me, the restoration is not a quality issue, but a stylistic one.

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The DNR process, as well as the color enhancement, was used on other recent Disney releases, including Robin Hood, which released the same day as this Blu-ray. The enhancements can also be seen in the recent Blu-rays for Cinderella and Peter Pan. However, in all of those cases, the colors stayed true to the original versions. It made for a brighter, clearer image. Here, it seems too much, and changed the entire look of the film. It appears to be an effort to make the film more visually appealing to young kids, like they are used to seeing in Pixar films. Will parents care about the changes? Likely not – they’ll probably appreciate how colorful the film looks now. Film purists, however, will hate it.

In addition, it appears the new Blu-ray uses a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, matted from an open 4:3 frame. This is different from the non-widescreen, “square” image scale featured in earlier VHS releases. Essentially, some of the image you saw in VHS and TV versions have now been matted over to create a widescreen image. However, the widescreen matting is the original intended projection ratio; the upper and lower parts of the image were never meant to be seen. However, in the pre-widescreen TV age, Disney provided the entire animated image outside of the original aspect ratio intent. I cannot fault Disney for finally fixing this for the Blu-ray, even if it means we no longer see parts of the image we have seen for years. It was the right choice.

SPECIAL FEATURES
The Blu-ray utilizes special features from previous DVD releases, and adds one new one, an alternate opening to the film. Using original storyboards that have been “animated,” a narrator walks us through the discarded opening. It involves Wart (Arthur) searching the woods for a lost arrow (much like we see in the film), only to nearly fall into the clutches of the evil Madam Mim and The Black Knight. Merlin rescues Wart, and takes him back to his own cottage, where he meets (among other things) Archimedes and Merlin’s miniature zoo, featuring tiny elephants and lions. Wart then invites Merlin to move into the castle with him.

The Sherman Brothers “Music Magic” featurette is by far the most interesting extra on the disc, as we are presented with vintage interviews (around 2001) with Robert and Richard Sherman, the Oscar-winning brothers responsible for the film’s music (as well as many other films, including The Jungle Book and Mary Poppins). It’s great to see this pair discuss their approach to music, and it’s a shame to realize that we just lost Robert Sherman, who died in 2012.

Two classic Disney shorts are included as well. One, titled “A Knight for a Day,” was released in 1946 and features Goofy as Cedric, a squire who ends up in a jousting match. The second, the 1938 classic “The Brave Little Tailor,” stars Mickey Mouse as a tailor who inadvertently volunteers to slay a giant. Both cartoons appear not to be remastered, as they feature some film grain and dust on the print, but they still look great considering the age.

A very cool excerpt from an old “Wonderful World of Disney” episode is included, in which Walt Disney himself talks about magic, and displays a few tricks of his own. It runs about eight minutes. A digital copy of the film (using the original un-enhanced DVD video master) is also included.

The DVD, which is merely a repack of the DVD release from five years ago (with updated previews), contains many of the same extras, only presented with different menus. The Sherman Brothers featurette, sing along option, the “Wonderful World of Disney” magic segment, and animated shorts are included. The “Backstage Disney” section of the DVD includes some features not included on the Blu-ray. There is a “scrapbook” featuring photos of the making of the film, as well as promotional materials. There’s even a look at how the film is featured at Disney Parks. A “film facts” feature provides some trivia about the film. An interactive game called “Merlin’s Magical Academy” is also included.

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THE BOTTOM LINE: BUY IT OR REDBOX IT?
Ratings (1-10 scale)

Movie: 7

Video: 5

Audio: 8

Extras: 7

Overall score: 6.75

The Sword in the Stone is solid, but not exceptional, Disney animation. The color enhancements are a minus in my book (hence the lower grade), but parents likely won’t care. The music is fun, and it is entertaining. Purists can always watch the DVD version included in the combo pack. The VUDU digital copy also appears to be the original DVD version as well.

BLU-RAY SPECS
Release Date: August 6, 2013

Rating: G

Running time: 79 minutes

Aspect ratio: 1.78:1

Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio (Blu-ray only), English 5.1 Dolby Digital, English 2.0 Dolby Digital, French 5.1 DTS-HD High Resolution (Blu-ray only), French 5.1 Dolby Digital, Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, Portuguese 2.0 Dolby Digital (Blu-ray only), Russian 2.0 Dolby Digital (Blu-ray only)

Subtitles: English for the Hearing Impaired, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese (Blu-ray only), Russian (Blu-ray only), English “Sing Along” lyrics.

Special features (available on both Blu-ray and DVD unless noted otherwise): Alternate opening (Blu-ray only), “Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers” featurette, Sing Along option, “A Knight for a Day” classic Disney short, “The Brave Little Tailor” classic Disney short, “Wonderful World of Disney: All About Magic” excerpt, Scrapbook (DVD only), Film Facts (DVD only), “Merlin’s Magical Academy” interactive game (DVD only), digital copy.

Label: Walt Disney Home Entertainment

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